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Foundations can do more, much more, to save democracy.

That our democracy is in danger of collapse is a belief shared by the majority of Americans. A poll released by Quinnipiac University in 2022 found that 58% of Americans - majorities in both major parties - think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse. Foundations who care about democracy can take steps to restore voter confidence. One place to start is with a broad focus on increasing voter turnout.


Voting lies at the heart of a healthy democracy.  Yet, even in the best of years, when turnout is high among registered voters, the United States ranks only 31st among fifty countries in percentage of voting age citizens casting a ballot.  


Even more troubling is the sharp decline in voting rates of nonwhite voters following the 2013 Supreme Court decision which effectively eliminated the “preclearance” rule in the Voting Act. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that that the turnout gap between Black and white voters in the counties covered by this rule grew by 11 percentage points since the 2013 decision. 


Why is this so? After the Supreme Court decision, state legislatures across the country passed an array of new election laws, including new voter ID laws which purged hundreds of thousands of names from the roles. All of these combined to make it more difficult for voters to cast a ballot. Counties previously subject to federal approval were now free to change other voting procedures such as polling locations, voting hours, election day staffing, and rules around early voting. And they did.


These changes did not just make voting more difficult for voters of color. The Senate Special Committee on Aging is worried about the impact of these changes on older adult voters. (“Barriers to Voting for Older Americans: How States are Making it Harder for Seniors to Vote.”)  College students face voter identification laws that exclude student IDs, elimination of voting stations near campus, and changes to absentee voting.

This is where foundations can come in. 

  • They can fund issue education initiatives, so people know where the candidates stand on concerns important to their lives.

  • They can invest in the nonprofit groups who do the hard work in communities to register, educate, and get voters to cast ballots. 

  • They can sponsor and amplify policy research focused on the structural barriers to voter participation including statewide policies and local election practices.

  • They can support groups focused on shaping election laws and practices at the state level.

  • They can reach out to small grassroots groups who have relationships with citizens who have stopped or never started voting and ask how they can help these groups.

  • They can do so much more.

Yet in a recent Chronicles of Philanthropy op-ed, Craig Kennedy threw a wet blanket on this idea. He implied that foundations are at risk of slipping into politics when they fund nonprofit organizations to do voter registration, mobilization, and education. Just the suggestion that this might be true is enough to make the Boards and CEOs of foundations shy away from funding voter turnout initiatives because of the perceived risk to their tax status and reputation.


Mr. Kennedy ignores two facts.


First, well defined tax rules already limit what foundations can fund. From our experience, foundation leaders are extremely cautious about wading into the public sphere for this very reason.


Second, eliminating structural barriers to voter participation is not political because it is not focused on one political party.  Voter identification laws requiring onerous documentation cut voting participation rates regardless of age, race, and party. All voters benefit by having access to voting early and absentee options. This is a non-partisan issue.


Not all foundations quake at the idea of empowering voters. In 2020, for example, the MacArthur Foundation gave $15 million to fifteen groups to educate and mobilize voters, combat disinformation and voter suppression, recruit and train poll workers, improve election administration, and protect voters’ rights through litigation and other means. We urge foundations to join MacArthur and other funders that are using their resources to promote participation in our democracy.


Voting is not a partisan issue; it is an American issue.

— Roberta Rakove and Suzanne Strassberger, May 2024


Roberta Rakove and Suzanne Strassberger bring decades of experience to their work in counseling foundations and nonprofits who want to change systems, impact public policy, and support advocacy.











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